When guests arrive at designer Sue Wong's Mercedes-Benz L.A. Fashion Week show, they'll get more than a peek at her signature evening dresses.


They'll be handed brochures and a newspaper spread that feature the restoration work she's done on the famed Norma Talmadge estate and the furniture she designed for it. Wong, who wants to launch a home line, is seeking licensing opportunities.


"I think you really have to show the world who you are," the L.A.-based Wong said. "And you really have to message that in your presentation of the clothes so that it's clear what you want to reveal. In my case, it's always about femininity."


And brand management. The designer will also use the show to announce a New York showroom, her first outside L.A., some executive hires and market penetration in Turkey and Poland. She'll also be making a show DVD for East Coast buyers and stores that feature her designs.


Wong is one of the best examples of off-runway entrepreneurs, but skills and broad marketing strategies like hers are becoming de rigueur and something of a financial imperative for designers who want to feature their wares at L.A.'s Fashion Week.


A first-class rollout can run between $50,000 and $75,000 to stage and top designers are broadening their marketing efforts to offset costs like that in the fashion industry, in which the risks and rewards continue to spiral higher. While guests watch models sashay down the runway and check the audience for celebs, the designers and their staff will be sizing up the crowd for potential sponsorships or licensing opportunities.


"There's a lot of business done off the runway," said Fern Mallis, vice president of New York-based IMG Fashion, which runs the event. "While clothes aren't sold off the runway, it's the most effective way to show your brand."


The L.A. show presents a great opportunity for designers.


Because it's still regarded as a second-tier market by industryites, a mistake in L.A. won't ruin your brand as it could in New York or Paris. A buzz-generating smash, however, can pay dividends comparable to those gleaned from the big shows.


Testing ground
Los Angeles is a great place to "get the kinks worked out," said Kelly Cutrone of People's Revolution in New York. Cutrone represents Jennifer Nicholson, Jack Nicholson's daughter who has made a big splash with her shows in Los Angeles and has also shown in New York. Cutrone said that it's important to have everything smooth before trying the New York stage, where one little mistake "can kill you."


While shows in Los Angeles can be presented for as little as $20,000, New York is a whole different animal. Small shows can be done for about $100,000, but most cost at least $300,000 and the most extravagant carry price tags in excess of $1 million.


Los Angeles is a much smaller event, with about 30 designers compared to New York's 240. Not only is there less competition for eyeballs, that goes for celebrities, too. A fashionista starlet might drive across town in Los Angeles just for fun, getting a big name star to make an appearance at your show can cost $100,000 in New York. The star-laden audiences mean the L.A. shows are covered in celebrity weeklies like In Touch and US Weekly.


Many L.A. designers are known for casual clothes like jeans, more interesting and practical for weekly magazine readers than haute couture, so showing in L.A. makes sense if you have a casual line, Cutrone said.


Wong, whose designs are sold in 43 countries, said the L.A. show still very much suits her needs.


"I've always considered myself to be kind of a home girl," said Wong, the only designer to show in all five years of L.A.'s young event.


"I think the L.A. fashion scene needs visibility, so I have chosen to stay here rather than go to New York." While she may take on New York in the future, Wong said it's easier to stay home, where she knows the models and has her own staff.


Big bounce
High-end jeans company Rock & Republic translated L.A. experience into New York success.


The company was a highlight of L.A.'s fashion week for years, but took the show on their road to New York this season. Rock and Republic showcased its denims and rolled out a new line of sunglasses in a $2 million show that wowed Gothamites.


"We thought we were going to get our asses handed to us get shipped back to L.A.," said Rock and Republic Chief Executive Michael Ball. But the show "killed," he said. Ball credits the company's L.A. roots, which he says provided its glamour, its rock n' roll attitude and sexy vibe.


Now the company is using its New York success to get a bounce at home without having to mount a full production. The company is hosting a media preview at the Regent Beverly Wilshire and a party at Hollywood club Area to commemorate the New York success.


Rock & Republic takes special pride in the show video that it will present at the party. The company eschews the traditional gift bags and other guest giveaways, but hires a production company to use five high-definition cameras, jibs, booms and lighting to create an extremely high-quality production. The edited video is distributed to stores where the company's clothes are sold.


"There's not another company in L.A. that does that," Ball said. In what could be seen as a sign of Rock and Republic's ascension in the fashion world, the five-year-old company has forsaken one-time sponsor Porsche for Aston Martin.


We kind of outgrew them," said Ball.

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